Fighting fires: Students get real-world experience through Manhattan Fire Department program

Manhattan Fire Department tends to a house fire near Tenth Street and Kearney on April 20, 2018. The fire started just before 5 p.m. (Logan Wassall | Collegian Media Group)

In June of 1985, Manhattan’s student firefighter program began when nine Kansas State students were hired by the just opened Headquarters Fire Station. Since then, the program has grown to hire 12 students at a time to serve as student firefighters.

The program is considered a work-study program with the university, where student firefighters are paid and are allowed to work up to 1,000 hours per year, fire chief Scott French said.

“We don’t ask them to do anything different than our own firefighters,” French said. “About the only difference is the cut-off on hours per year, and that we do work around their school schedules.”

Karly Christensen, junior in psychology and student firefighter, said that she found the application for the program while looking for part-time jobs and decided to apply despite her limited knowledge in the field.

“It’s been very educational,” Christensen said. “I had no idea what to expect with this career field. I don’t have anyone in my family that has ever done this, so it was really eye-opening to see what the guys that I work alongside go through, what training they do, and how dedicated they are to their job and the community surrounding them.”

Three student firefighters are assigned to each shift, which typically goes from 5 p.m. until 8 a.m the following day during the week, with occasional 24-hour shifts on weekends. Students average four to five shifts per month and during semester breaks and over summer they work more 24-hour shifts.

To be eligible for the program, undergraduate students must be enrolled in 12 credit hours per semester with Kansas State or Manhattan Christian College, or 6 hours for graduate students.

Undergraduate students are required to maintain a semester grade point average of at least 2.0, and graduate students are required to maintain a 3.0. Christensen said the job is unique because they expect students to put schoolwork first and want to see them succeed in school as well as their job.

“The community, [gets] that partnership of working with students that are here in town, and we get an opportunity to recruit local or within the community,” French said. “[Student firefighters] provide a valuable service at a reduced cost to the taxpayer, because it is through Kansas work-study. To the student, it’s a part-time job, it’s a resume-builder. It’s an opportunity for them to look at the fire service and see if that might be a career they are interested in pursuing in the future.”

Christensen said she would emphasize to others interested in the program that the student firefighter program is not limited to men, and that her experience as a female student firefighter has been beneficial in both her professional and personal life.

Students who are hired for the program must complete the same six-week fire academy training that is required of full-time hires, which typically takes place two weeks after the spring semester. Students also must complete the same physical performance assessment as full-time hires.

“It’s a commitment. When you’re working here, you’re working beside professional staff that expect professionalism out of you,” French said. “There are expectations, but it can be very rewarding. I encourage anybody to do some public service type work.”

French said the program will continue as usual this semester despite the movement to online classes.

Many students continue on from the student firefighter program to serve in other fire departments across the nation. Currently, 16 former student firefighters serve in the Manhattan department, including French, the deputy chief and two battalion chiefs.

“[The program] has been successful for us as a community and a department, and we see a lot of other departments that have reached out and asked us how we do it and how they might be able to implement that in their community,” French said. “It’s a good program and we are glad that we’re a part of it.”